In the last couple of issues, I’ve been talking about the value and power that remain in the brick-and-mortar shopping experience. I truly believe that all the disruptive technologies and paradigm shifts that buffet us now will change how we present that experience, but they will not erase it. However, it is up to us to figure out how we have to change, because the predictions of pundits (my own included) are neither universal nor guaranteed.
An example from our history illustrates the folly of mistaking trends and fashions for absolute indicators of the future. I worked in a guitar shop in the early to mid-’80s. As hair-metal reached its peak, we sold an ever-increasing array of tricked-out, Floyd-equipped, sculpted-body electrics. From radical shapes to bumblebee finishes, a glittering array of artist-endorsed electrics covered the walls, even eclipsing the (then) bland-seeming Strats and Les Pauls. Ibanez was one of the leaders of the pack, and snagging iconic endorsers virtually guaranteed legions of their fans would flock lemming-like to their namesake products.
The solid body popularity grabbed increasing wall space while acoustics—even acoustic-electrics—languished. Many spoke of “The Death of the Acoustic”; guitars, pianos and drums were all dinosaurs. For a time, the store I was in considered completely discontinuing acoustic guitars. Among true acoustic players, the love was still there, but they were starting to look like monks preserving knowledge during the Dark Ages.
Meanwhile, iconic keyboards like the Yamaha DX-7 and Korg’s groundbreaking M-1 workstation sold as fast as they hit the doorstep. Electronic drums were trending, led by the Simmons kits. Everything hip was digital, new and shiny.
Sound familiar? What happened? Spoiler alert: life went on.
What we experienced then—despite the seemingly game-changing ubiquity of new technology and materials—was an intersection of technical innovation and fashion. And when the fashion changed, the balance changed, even though the tech remained and continued to advance. Technology is always a factor, but it is intimately woven with the way people want to use it. Eventually, the acoustics again flourished—even that former punch line the ukulele—and banjos, mandolins and all sorts of rootsy stuff is hot now.
Humans are funny that way. We willfully ignore efficient solutions, chase after shiny objects, nostalgically hang on to outmoded tools and remain loyal or turn fickle for the flimsiest of reasons. I consider this one of our adaptive strengths, but it’s also a tough marketing riddle.
We are never fully in unison, either. Everybody wants to reduce carbon emissions, consumption and waste, right? Then why, after all the talk we’ve heard about conservation, do so many of my customers sit in their cars on pleasant days with the engine running the entire time their kid is in lessons? We’re NOT all on the same page. With anything “new,” there is a spectrum of adoption over time—and that might be generations, not the flip of a switch.
Still, disruptive technologies make it seem so. We talk of the shift to mobile commerce now in the same way we talked about getting on Facebook just a handful of years ago: as an inexorable Must Do To Remain Relevant goal. Perhaps. But there’s another force to potentially counterbalance disruptive technologies: disruptive events.
The most disruptive event of the last half-century was 9/11. It changed so many things about our daily life. It changed travel forever. It gave us invasive levels of scrutiny in the name of security. It changed our national psyche in ways we’re still analyzing.
As much as we see the power of Amazon and other commerce juggernauts now, disruptive events can change everything. You can come up with a thousand scenarios, but I’ll give you two.
Case #1: Sales Tax “Fairness.” Passed in the Senate, it’s pending in the House. But even without new legislation, Amazon’s ambitious “same-day” distribution scheme will put them in nearly every state, which means they’ll charge sales tax. How does that change buying habits? Early indications are that it will reduce online sales; certainly, online merchants think so. Why do you think Amazon’s pushing Prime so hard?
Case #2: (What if) Amazon, Walmart or another giant seller’s site is hacked? You thought the Target debacle was bad? I think it would be the nuclear winter of e-commerce. If customer info were to be compromised, people wouldn’t feel safe on any site. Sure, the Bitcoin miners and other savvy types would gird themselves and continue, but legions of cautious dabblers would walk away.
My personal experience over the counter supports this: in the last three months, I’ve seen a real uptick in good, old-fashioned cash. Just a year ago, I was grousing that people were using cards for everything, including plenty of under-$5 sales. Since the Target breach (after which dozens of my customers dealt with card replacements, security clampdowns and the stress of uncertainty) many people have told me they “feel safer” carrying cash. WHAT? Not that long ago, it was the exact opposite. But they perceive the digital threat as greater than the physical one. Disruptive event.
Add to that the growing concern over “information sharing” and I see what looks to me like a backlash. Customers are growing resistant to having receipts e-mailed, and question the security of our Wi-Fi. It might become harder to reach consumers effectively if this escalates.
Will it? So many people tell me books are dead, brick-and-mortar is dead, paper transactions are dead…I just can’t subscribe to absolutes. Certainly, things will change and once-dominant practices will likely fade to the fringe or disappear. But I don’t fall into the “All Roads Lead To The Future” crowd, because—like many—I eclectically use the available tools. I have embraced sales on an iPad…but I will probably never read a book on one. I would gladly drive an electric car…but can’t envision syncing my phone to it.
Trends can be legislated against. They can also run afoul of worst-case scenarios: think Hannibal Lecter Meets Uber. But seemingly obsolete items can rise again, just as the acoustic guitar did.
I can illustrate that never-say-never concept in a single word: “vinyl.”